For the past several years I’ve challenged myself to shoot more creatively during my family’s annual mid-summer vacation to the Outer Banks (OBX), a string of barrier islands off the coast of North Carolina. In previous years I’ve experimented with shooting multiple exposures on transparency film using my Nikon F6; retrofitting my Fujica GW690 rangefinder to shoot 35mm; and creating half frame diptychs and triptychs with an old Ricoh Caddy.
This year, I decided to use my Mamiya 645 1000s to expose two extremely expired rolls of 120-format Kodak Kodacolor film that was generously gifted to me by a kind soul a few years ago. The roll of Kodacolor II expired in July of 1981, and the Kodacolor VR expired in July of 1986. I had no idea how these rolls had been stored, but I assumed that since they were shared by a fellow photography enthusiast, that they would at least have been kept in a temperature controlled environment.
I know there are a lot of opinions about how to properly expose expired color print film, and that not everyone agrees with the “rule” to add one stop per decade (of expiration), but that general guidance has always worked well for me.
However, since both rolls of Kodacolor were originally rated at ISO 100, using this exposure compensation method would have taken me to ISO 12, requiring me to shoot wide open with my manual focus Mamiya Sekor-C lenses. I might have had enough midday sun at the beach to handhold at these slower film speeds, had I not also insisted on shooting everything with a polarizing filter that cut an additional stop of light.
My workaround was to rate the film at ISO 25 and push it an additional stop in development. In retrospect, I should have gone with my gut and rated the film at ISO 12 while still pushing it an additional stop in post for an effective rating of ISO 6. Fortunately, I was able to salvage my slightly underexposed results by scanning the negatives in 48-bit mode and adjusting the levels in Adobe Lightroom.
I exposed both rolls under full sunlight in Nags Head, N.C., and was usually able to shoot at 1/125th with my two faster lenses (the 45mm f/2.8 and the 80mm f/2.8). With my 105mm f/3.5, I had to shoot at 1/60th and slower. In order to get sharp photos of beachside action, I primarily shot with the wider lenses stopped down as much as was feasible.
Kodacolor II was the first Kodak emulsion to use the C-41 process, and had only been available in 135 format for eight years by the time the roll I received expired. The shots on this older emulsion turned out rather nice, albeit with the quirks and degradations one would expect from a questionably stored four-decade-old roll of film. I actually liked the color shift toward cyan and magenta, which gave the beach scenes a dreamy, retro feel.
Even pushed, the film’s grain was pleasant and organic. The main drawback that I noticed was significantly reduced dynamic range. Highlights in particular tended to blow out when I metered for the midtones.
I was not as thrilled with the results from the Kodacolor VR, which was one of the early emulsions to utilize Kodak’s T-Grain technology. Mostly, I was disappointed with the look of the grain, which to my eye felt clinical (almost like digital noise) compared to the Kodacolor II.
The newer film also suffered contrast and color issues, but unlike the older film, the results felt more like a fault than a feature.
One fun quirk the Kodacolor VR demonstrated was burned-in ghost images from the film’s backing paper. This is a fairly common artifact found in other super-expired 120-format shots. Despite its understandable shortcomings, I was honestly impressed that the Kodacolor VR shots turned out at all.
Shooting expired film is always a gamble, especially when the film in question predates the photographer using it. That said, my experience with these two rolls of Kodacolor from the early 1980s was a winning bet. The fun, memorable scenes I was able to capture feel like snapshots from a bygone era, and rewarded my film experimentation with useful learning opportunities and enjoyable results.
Feel free to check out all the shots from my various OBX film sessions in my album on Lomography.
Buy your own expired film on eBay and get experimenting!
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Interesting article. Like it.